Indie singer-songwriters master art of collaboration

The word “Supergroup” feels like a loaded term. When I hear the word, the first image that pops into my head is a nameless group of aging male rock stars giving one last collaborative hurrah, with their output never remotely measuring up to the material of their previous bands or solo careers. It is not a word I would typically associate with three young, talented (and female) indie rock singer-songwriters whose careers are just starting to take off. I’m not sure whether this is more a reflection of the gender biases of the rock music world or those of my own, but regardless, “boygenius”—the aptly ironic name for the collaboration and resulting EP by Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus—has significantly altered my perception of what a supergroup can be.

Upon hearing about this release, I was already familiar with all three artists. The deeply confessional and emo-tinged folkrock of Baker’s 2015 debut album “Sprained Ankle” struck a chord with me. I was impressed and enchanted by the intimate storytelling and sonically lush folk-pop on Bridgers’ 2017 debut album “Stranger in the Alps.” And Dacus’ powerful 2017 single “Night Shift” was, in my opinion, one of the indie rock anthems of the year.

Naturally, I was excited to learn that these three talented artists were collaborating on a project, but also a little nervous that the product wouldn’t measure up to their solo work, as is often the case with so-called supergroups. Collaboration is tricky—how does a successful solo artist stay true to the artistic individualism that has defined their career while also making the sacrifices necessary to create a unified group sound?

Luckily, Baker, Bridgers and Dacus have hit the collaborative nail on the head. What makes the six songs on “boygenius” work so well is that all three women maintain their unique musical identities throughout, while still managing to put together a project with clear thematic cohesion. This approach allows them to each capitalize on their strengths, while also creating an impressive amount of musical variation on a six-track EP.

But what makes this project truly magical are the small moments scattered throughout when the three artists bring together their musical energies, briefly creating sounds incredibly unique from any of their own styles. This often manifests quite literally in the form of stunning three-part harmonies: Baker, Bridgers and Dacus fit together their distinctive voices perfectly and use this collaboration to create some heart-stopping moments throughout the EP.

This approach is present from the beginning with opener “Bite the Hand.” With its strong, grounded rock sound and reflective yet frank lyrics, the song is a clear Dacus composition. In fact, Dacus does take the lead for the majority of the track, building energy over two verses and a climactic bridge.

But the most powerful moment is the song’s outro: Dacus, Bridgers and Baker each repeat the simple refrain—“I can’t love you how you want me to”—in different harmonic lines but not simultaneously, layering their voices to create a cascading effect as the instrumentation continues to build.

Then suddenly, the instrumentation stops and all of their voices come together at once. For a few stunning final seconds, we are left only with the stark sound of their unaccompanied vocal harmonies.

The following track, “Me & My Dog,” is one of the EP’s finest. Like many of Bridgers’ songs, it tells the story of a relationship through small details and moments. The first two verses are quiet and intimate, with just an electric guitar and Bridgers’ soft vocals as she paints an opening scene: “We had a great day/Even though we forgot to eat.”

You can tell that the song is building toward something, but it’s still a strikingly powerful surprise when all three women suddenly explode into perfect harmony on the song’s anthemic chorus: “I never said I’d be all right/Just thought I could hold myself together.”—this is still Bridgers’ song, but it has been elevated to entirely new levels.

With Baker belting out a top harmony and Dacus setting the bass to Bridgers’ melody, you can hear the passion of all three of them as a single unit: “I wanna be emaciated/I wanna hear one song without thinking of you/I wish I was on a spaceship/Just me and my dog and an impossible view.”

The closer “Ketchum, ID” is the most beautiful of all. The only fully acoustic track on the EP, the song communicates the loneliness of being a touring musician constantly on the move through both its lyrics and its bare sonic palette (you can hear someone hesitantly play a chord and whisper “okay” on the recording before the song begins—even the smallest of details holds a lot of weight here).

The song originally belonged to Bridgers, but each artist contributes a verse of reflection on this feeling that is clearly common between all three of them, highlighting both the similarities of their experiences and their distinctive approaches to lyricism.

By far the most haunting verse is the song’s chorus: “I am never anywhere/ Anywhere I go/When I’m home I’m never there/Long enough to know.” Bridgers, Baker and Dacus sing these lines in a dreamlike three-part harmony that further communicates all the pain and loneliness behind these words.

On the final refrain, they take the haunting forlorn quality to a whole new level: “When I’m home I’m never there/Long enough…”—the sentence is never finished, the cadence never completed. It’s an absolutely heart-wrenching moment and—like many other moments on this EP—leaves you wanting more.

The group is indeed an ingenious collaboration between three of the most promising voices in indie rock. I hope we get to hear more of their work in the future.

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